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Michael Payne, left, and Matt Smith, two Vance Middle School students who were embroiled in controversy in April after passing out purple Relay for Life T-shirts to fellow students, on Monday discuss their experience attending the Relay for Life cancer fundraiser Friday.

Amy Hunter


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By Amy Hunter

Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier

Published: July 1, 2008



BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt Smith and Michael Payne weren’t sure what to do last Friday night when they found they needed to be in two places at once.

The soon-to-be eighth-graders were supposed to attend Any Fest, a benefit to raise money for the funeral of a family friend and Relay For Life, a fundraiser for cancer research they vowed to attend months ago.

So, after spending some time at Any Fest, the boys walked over to Bristol Motor Speedway and joined about 2,000 others who turned out to walk for cancer research, they said.

“Cancer is not gonna stop until you stop it yourself,” Michael said on Monday.

In April, the Vance Middle School students sparked a controversy at their school when they passed out a number of purple, Relay for Life T-shirts to fellow students that some school officials said caused a disruption.

The T-shirts were banned by school administrators who said the students were painting the fundraiser in a bad light by misbehaving while wearing them.

The students said they were trying to draw attention to the cancer benefit and they claimed the principal and vice principal banned both the shirts and the color purple after accusing them of starting a “purple gang,” – a charge that was denied by school officials.

After a week of bitter controversy, the school administrators acquiesced and permitted the students to wear the garments and the students promised to follow through with their efforts by attending the June benefit.

“Cancer is really taking over the world. People need to be more conscious about smoking and being out in the sun,” Michael said.

The two boys said they were glad they made it to the fundraiser and they felt they learned something from the whole brouhaha.

“I’m really proud that we got through this and I just hope my teachers take what we did not as a prank – and know that it wasn’t a gang or anything,” Michael said.

Matt added, “I wouldn’t change anything.”

Matt and Michael said that shortly after the T-shirt controversy, their principal, Rigby Kind, helped organize a cancer fundraiser in which students raised money and walked around the school carrying signs in support of cancer research. They said the effort raised more than $1,000.

Amy Hopson, Sullivan County development representative for the American Cancer Society, said Relay for Life has raised $170,000 so far and she expects more contributions throughout the summer.

Hopson said the event was open to the public and registration was not required so she could not confirm that the boys were there. However, she said, with about 2,000 participants she felt the benefit was a success.

The boys said they wished more of their classmates had attended the relay.

The lives of both boys have been touched by the disease, they said. Matt’s uncle died a few months ago after battling lung cancer and a female classmate Michael described as “a really sweet girl” had to stop going to school after being diagnosed, he said.

The boys said they were touched by all the people who took part in the benefit.

“There was one man there who had cancer and he was still going around in a wheelchair,” Michael said.

ahunter@bristolnews.com | (276) 645-2531

Reader Reactions

Posted by ( Sassy1 ) on July 01, 2008 at 7:57 am

I think the school systems are sometimes wound too tight, I remember the story about the T-Shirts and thought it was ridiculous of the Principal then and still do now. Kudos to these two boys for doing something good in the first place and then holding to their guns and they are still doing right. The Principal needs to publicly apologize to these students.

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